Synaptic Sunday #4

This Sunday, links on the flexibility of our moral choices:

1) Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

I wonder what the definition of a bad person would be within the framework of the article. Someone who’s instructed to think ethically (given an ethical framework about a set of choices) but still makes unethical choices? Someone who’s never sincerely repentant? This line also jumped out at me:

In general, when we think about bad behavior, we think about it being tied to character: Bad people do bad things. But that model, researchers say, is profoundly inadequate.

I think it’s still tied to character, but not in a cartoonish way – shining superheroes vs. dastardly supervillains (though there are individuals who closely resemble each). Everyone has various weaknesses and temptations, not to mention the capacity for self-delusion – to think about an evil act in a more benign way, rationalizing it. The ability to fight rationalizations and temptations, and recognize them before they take root and become mental habits, is an essential part of having a stronger character. The success may be mixed. It’s usually not as simple as thinking of character having two settings: pure good or pure evil.

So the question ‘Why do Good People Do Bad Things?’ still brings you back to the point on what the authors here mean by a ‘good person’ (or a ‘bad person’). Good people may do bad things, but they also do good things? They do certain kinds of bad things but not other kinds? They do bad things from a good motive that they sincerely feel minimizes the bad or makes it a grudging ‘necessary evil’ rather than something undertaken with supervillainish glee? (But so much destruction and evil have stemmed from well-intentioned policies, ideological principles and motives.) They operate out of ignorance more than cold calculation? (A line from the article: (“and if we want to attack fraud, we have to understand that a lot of fraud is unintentional.”) How ignorant are they? How unintentional is it?

The article ends with some proposals to make people in business environments less susceptible to perpetrating fraud. After listing some proposals the article ends with:

Or, we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.

Well, shouldn’t they know? That doesn’t mean that people aren’t more susceptible in some situations to committing evil, even outside of their awareness. Developing awareness of those susceptibilities and temptations, developing the discernment to see them even when they seem to slip unknowingly into one’s behavior (including when they’re in the guise of good deeds), and rectifying their ill effects as soon as possible are all at the heart of having a good character.

2) Wearing Two Different Hats: Moral Decisions May Depend on the Situation

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

The scripts can be different depending on the role we’re playing (are we thinking like a medic or a soldier?) More on this research here.

Synaptic Sunday #3

This Sunday, some links on addiction and control:

1) The Fallacy of the Hijacked Brain

An op-ed from the NY Times:

A little logic is helpful here, since the “choice or disease” question rests on a false dilemma. This fallacy posits that only two options exist. Since there are only two options, they must be mutually exclusive. If we think, however, of addiction as involving both choice and disease, our outlook is likely to become more nuanced. For instance, the progression of many medical diseases is affected by the choices that individuals make.

2) Disease and Choice

One blogger’s response to the above op-ed.

The hijacked brain metaphor may be flawed, but it’s attempting to communicate that the addiction uses the addict’s own self-preservation instincts, desires and will to maintain addiction.

3) Addicts’ Brains May Be Wired At Birth For Less Self-Control

A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse.

Cocaine addicted people were studied alongside siblings who didn’t have a drug abuse history. What’s interesting is that the siblings also showed poorer self-control during the study’s task, and had atypical brain scan findings as well. So what led to one sibling abusing drugs, while the other didn’t? How do personal choices and environment come into play? Having a brain that might be more susceptible to poor impulse control or addictive behaviors doesn’t doom you to drug addiction. And, as in other studies, were there individuals whose results differed from the group as a whole? (e.g. a cocaine-addicted person who didn’t have the pre-existing abnormalities in the brain).

Synaptic Sunday #2

This Sunday, a few links on excessive anxiety.

1) Anxiety May Hinder Your Sense of Danger

The result implies that worriers are less aware of potential danger—challeng­ing the common theory that anxious individuals are hypervigilant. Frenkel be­lieves that worrywarts’ low sensitivity to external warning signs causes them to be startled frequently by the seemingly sudden appearance of threats, which leaves them in a state of chronic stress.

Further study is needed, but it’s an interesting example of how the brain might work against itself. High anxiety and stress are not meant to be chronic states of being, but reactions to specific situations.

2) Anxious Girls’ Brains Work Harder

A young woman could be intelligent, competent and knowledgeable, but if she has problems with anxiety her brain might not be functioning as efficiently as possible.

“Anxious girls’ brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries,” Moser said. “As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids — and especially anxious girls — have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math.”

Initially the article points out that high brain activity was observed in the more anxious women when they detected an error in their performance on a task (had they not been able to tell when they were making a mistake, would the results have been different?) At least part of the problem could involve fixating on errors: worrying that you’ll repeat them, that you’re no good at this… and any other self-defeating thoughts. But I haven’t seen the original paper, just the write-up at the Sciencedaily link.

3) New Study Suggests Depression May Increase Vulnerability to Anxiety

Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders often go hand-in-hand. Why that is, is not 100% clear at this point. They might have similar neurological underpinnings and can both arise (and interact with each other) as a reaction to adverse circumstances in life. One kind of disorder might also make you more vulnerable to the other (as this study suggests, speculating about depression paving the way for anxiety). Anxiety could possibly make you more vulnerable to depression as well. If someone for example suffers from severe social anxiety, and in consequence experiences poor academic performance, difficulty securing a job, and personal relationships that are strained or nonexistent, depression could set in.

Don’t neglect any problems you have with anxiety. Even if you don’t have a formal diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, you might still be worrying too much and experiencing more stress than is good for you; excessive worrying can hinder cognitive performance and have other adverse effects on your mental activity and physical health. Finding healthy ways to manage anxiety is one of the best things you can do for yourself (here’s one set of suggestions, also making the important point that people with anxiety disorders often have more difficulty coping with life’s uncertainties; here’s another interesting discussion about worrying, with tips to cut down on it and further links to relaxation techniques).

Synaptic Sunday #1

Synaptic Sunday is a weekly collection of thought-provoking links related by similar topics:

1. If we remember more, can we read deeper–and create better? Part I.

In the very process of memorizing, remembering—and faltering—we don’t just learn more about what we are reading. We also learn more about how we are reading, how we are reacting to the material—and, in a way (or, at least, after we’ve stopped to ponder our mistakes in the manner Cooke suggests we do) why we are reacting to it as we do.

Interesting discussion on memorization, and what the process can show us about our minds and how we analyze whatever it is we’re memorizing (the example in the article is literary work). Also starts off with an interesting description of a memorization technique using the body’s movements, which can serve as cues for later recall.

2. Another post on the unreliability and malleability of memory

Elizabeth Loftus has produced a body of work showing that our memories aren’t strictly accurate recordings of what we’ve taken in through the senses, but that we can unintentionally shape, elaborate on, and outright fabricate them, and are influenced by suggestive remarks made by others (her work has had an enormous impact on cognitive psychology and also the legal field – how witness testimony is solicited and handled). At the link you’ll find further links to an interview with Loftus, and also to an article from Time Magazine on the faultiness of memory.

3. Memory Training Unlikely to Help in Treating ADHD, Boosting IQ

Overall, working memory training improved performance on tasks related to the training itself but did not have an impact on more general cognitive performance such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic.

I’m not sure what the working memory training tasks are; I’ve never participated in such a program (one example of a training task is mentioned at the link). Different kinds of memory processes may be related to and interact with other cognitive processes, but there needs to be caution about the claims made by people selling these programs. If they’re telling you that an intensive program of memory tasks will boost your cognitive ability more broadly, you have to ask yourself if this is really the case. Can they give you proof, linking training in certain memory tasks or series of tasks with measurable improvements in other areas of cognition and in academic success?

Maybe their whole approach of “loading up the brain with training exercises” is the wrong one to take to begin with, if they really want to use these tasks as a means of strengthening cognitive abilities more generally and not only your performance on those specific memory tasks. Maybe the problem with the training exercises is that they’re dry, rote short-term memory tasks, which don’t call on other areas of cognition as much as other kinds of memory tasks would.

4. Memories are Crucial for Imagining the Future

The past and future may seem like different worlds, yet the two are intimately intertwined in our minds. In recent studies on mental time travel, neuroscientists found that we use many of the same regions of the brain to remember the past as we do to envision our future lives.

Fascinating article.